an international episode

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Veronica Veronese, 1872 – oil on canvas – 109,2 x 88,9 cm – Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, USA.


Considerations on the novel by Henry James

This light and amusing novel, sometimes loaded with a certain humor in the picturesque mannerisms of its characters, was first published in 1878, the same year that the prolific Henry James published the novel The Europeans and three other telenovelas, among them the famous Daisy Miller. Here we are approaching something very similar to what is known in the movies as a “romantic comedy”, albeit loaded with a good dose of study of customs, when we find a protagonist like Lord Lambeth, a young English aristocrat, who makes it very clear from the beginning his intention to meet American girls during his stay in this country. The comic relief of the English characters finds a break in front of the seriousness of a very pretty girl from Boston, the sister of the hostess of “our English friends”, as the narrator refers, Bessie Alden, a literate girl and admirer of the English universe.

What is very valuable for the reader is to wander through the pages of a novel as short as an international episode, a quick read, with its characters so dynamically woven into their conversations and relationships, and discover that there are much deeper layers to be uncovered and unearthed by an eager and shrewd interpretive mind. Not only because each of the main characters in the plot is ready to develop a theory about society or about their partner, but also because the narrator leaves clues to the motivations that lead each action to take place the way it happens – which is particularly interesting to think about the outcome of the book, but we will keep the surprise for the reader.

an international episode is an amusing invitation to the reader who is not yet familiar with the work of Henry James to start venturing through the author's books. And for those who already know this American traveller, who, like many of his characters, insisted on not setting foot in one place – thankfully, that way he could write about the most diverse types, from the most diverse places – and who, like Bessie Alden, nurtured certain passion for the English universe, here is a novel that is a little less known, it is true, but that presents some of the key characteristics to get to know this writer more deeply: from the international theme, to his study of the psychology of the American people shaped by democracy, and its strong female characters (dare we say, more interesting than the male heroes).

A Word About Henry James and His Travels

Born in 1843, in the USA, Henry James is part of a family of notables that includes a famous brother, the pragmatist philosopher William James, both developing great admiration for their respective figures and revered for their work still in life. . The James family, very well-off financially, traveled through Europe when Henry was just a child, making some contacts that certainly marked the future novelist, who would visit these places again later in his life.

He studied law, but never practiced the profession properly, leaving aside to dedicate himself to life as a fiction writer, publishing his shorter stories and novels in periodicals interspersed with the writing of his longer-lasting novels. Throughout this period, the young Henry James did not stop traveling, visiting Rome, living in Paris, and, even more important, getting to know the works of authors who would come to mark his literary conception, names such as Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens, acute observers of national customs and critics of the social relations of modern life.

But for a traveler like Henry James, something more should be put into his writing, despite the immense curiosity that a society like the American one showed for Europeans, and also for the intellectuals of his own country. After all, a society was being born there, imposing itself as a novelty, of free men and where everyone, supposedly, had an equal chance of progressing in life – which, in an international episode it cannot fail to be pointed out when the American characters find themselves on English soil: a society marked by hereditary class division.

Balzac, without a doubt, was a strong influence on Henry James, who took advantage of a peculiar characteristic of his countrymen to develop one of the most famous themes of his work, the “international theme”. The wealthiest American families traveled to Europe or sent their children to this continent in order to offer their offspring an erudite education, having direct contact with the objects of their studies - an education that even Henry James himself, as pointed out, was provided.

the international theme

The encounter between American and European characters in the books of Henry James came to be known by his readers and scholars of his work under the title of “the international theme”, when there is a clash between understandings and ways of dealing socially, when certain freedoms must be hidden or extravasated from the place where it is located, or from the companies present.

One of the mottos of the “international theme” for many of the characters present in these books is that, being a foreigner, when arriving in another environment, in lands where you are a guest, the right thing to do is to be cautious and observe the customs and behaviors locations so as not to extrapolate the licenses given by the hosts. Freedoms assumed to be natural can be castrated when arriving in a new environment, just as freedoms that were always prevented in the homeland can appear as a novelty during vacation periods in some seaside resort – in the case of an international episode, Newport Island.

In this sense, there is a very interesting detail in the work of Henry James that deals with the perspective of women within these environments, this character who usually suffers from deprivation finds centrality in James' social readings - not just a social reading, but mainly the psychological extension of these social conventions. The female characters find in James' work their due protagonism to demonstrate the clearest differences between societies and the ways in which people behave in the face of female marginalization.

In a certain passage of an international episode, we can read one of the English characters, Mr Percy Beaumont, saying in a somewhat jocular, if indecorous tone, that English women are much more under male control (something he only has the courage to say in the company of another partner of the same sex ); he says this because he finds himself dissatisfied with the opinionated licenses, the freedom of expression that Mrs. Westgate demonstrates – the latter, although not as literate as her sister, does not shy away from demonstrating all her imaginative and theory-creating freedom, which leaves figures somewhat uncomfortable old-world masculine outfits.

Based on his travels, the international theme is certainly something that James develops in view of his readings of Balzac and Dickens, but especially of the former, when the social plots reverberate an impact on the subjectivity of his characters, as we can see when Miss Bessie Alden wants to going out for a walk in London, but is reproached by her sister, because in England it is not well regarded for an unmarried girl to walk around alone. Here is a freedom that was very clear within Bessie Alden's mind, and that now, on foreign soil, she can no longer exercise because of a convention that escapes her hands.

As stated above: when arriving in a new place, one must adapt to local customs, which is also valid for the first part of the novel, when the English are in the USA, a scenario described with all its peculiarity, because the narrator takes the point of view of its visitors, always amazed by everything that happens around them, all the speed of this extremely hot country, visited in the last month of summer. Private liberties on one side of the Atlantic are found on the other.

Thinking about American democracy and its psychological impacts

From the second half of the XNUMXth century, intellectuals concerned with thinking about their country and the impacts that democracy was beginning to have on the mentality of its people began to appear in the USA. Whether for or against a good number of these thinkers shaped part of what can be called a national identity. One of the first names to be evoked is precisely that of a poet, Walt Whitman, but figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William James and … Henry James cannot be left out.

The role of Henry James is very well established by him in a short novel, written some years after an international episode, call Pandora, when he introduces his reader to the interest of the German protagonist in studying the psychological impact of this peculiarly organized society on the people born there. What is interesting for Henry James to look for is precisely the female perspective, which despite not yet conquering its central role in society – Mrs. Westgate resents the absence of her husband who works, although she understands him, but continues to act as lady of the home – has many more freedoms than can be seen in other societies.

The point is that the spirit of democracy, where everyone would have equality and be everywhere, like Whitman's blades of grass, permeates all of Henry James's American characters with such vivacity that they believe they can do whatever they want. understands them and that all doors would be open to them. And in fact, there are no impediments of class, everyone is very welcome to circulate among the most diverse groups of society, which seems strange when the American ladies of an international episode arrive in England, and especially Bessie Alden notices that her noble friend, Lord Lambeth, does not circulate among the groups she finds most interesting: the artists, the poets.

The descriptions of the social settings, especially of the parties, made by Henry James provide many details that can be studied by a more pertinent reader, because even if due attention is not paid to certain details, we cannot fail to notice that they are there, marking its presence. It is a duplicity, an ambiguity that we can find not only in his characters – which we could say increases his realistic side – but also an ambiguity in relation to the treatment of his themes, as is the case of democracy. These scenarios are very well marked in an international episode, especially during the two English gentlemen's walks through American lands: their walks through the streets of New York, their stay in a hotel in Newport, the descriptions of hotel lobbies and restaurants. The characters that inhabit these settings are briefly mentioned by Henry James, but they cannot be seen as mere ornaments for landscape painting.

The Female Characters of Henry James

Boston is described by Henry James as the city of intellectuals and a place that Percy Beumont, the more eruditely inclined of the two English gentlemen, would have liked to visit during his stay. Instead, he manages to get in touch with some people from there, a young man sitting in Mrs Westgate's house with a book in his hand, as one would expect from a Bostonian, but who at first does not argue with the gentleman. It is another person from that city who gains more space in the plot and in the minds of the English lords: Bessie Alden, always looking at these characters with curiosity, never having met an Englishman face to face, only in imagination.

And Bessie Alden's imagination has already taken her much further, being in England even before she could set foot on the European island, through the incessant reading of authors who described the English world, its places, its customs, its history. His closeness and admiration for Lord Lambeth grows by seeing in this member of the nobility a specimen out of one of his beloved books, but he is often disappointed with this boy, who seems to make no effort in anything, especially in knowing the literary classics of his culture itself. The Lord is already born with his title and does not need to make an effort to progress in his life, because he will naturally do so, due to the chance of being born into the right family, something that, despite dazzling Bessie Alden, disappoints her when she does not find company in her partner. of in-depth discussions that I thought I would find in a high noble spirit.

Bessie Alden is the incarnation of these young female characters who often appear in Henry James novels and novels, a girl who takes advantage of the possibilities of freedom given to her in her country and who takes them with great pleasure, towards what is might call an emancipation. Unlike her sister, who seems to live in the shadow of her absent husband and who casts her opinions as they come to mind (and the speech she makes in the flow of her thoughts to the English newcomers is a precious literary construction on the part of James), Bessie Alden does it differently, customarily taking time to think before giving an important answer, interpreting what she is told and punctuating what she might say in return.

The English are very curious about a girl who allows herself such freedoms, even if she is far from being as libertarian as Daisy Miller. No, Bessie Alden makes her freedoms appear differently, and ever more subtly, so as to confuse the minds of her English friends, who, judging her by old-world standards of behavior, tend to interpret her incursions of inquiry into the Lord Lambeth's life as a girl's curiosity wishing to make a beautiful marriage. It is from this doubt that a certain romantic spirit hovers over the novel, whether there would be a love relationship to develop between Lord Lambeth and Bessie Alden.

The old world, with its obtuse rules, keeps women on the sidelines, as the proper caretakers of their families, expected only to care for their flock, a position taken by the Duchess of Bayswater, mother of Lord Lambeth (a character satirized by James, and which apparently would have made some English readers rather uncomfortable). For Bessie Alden and her youthful spirit with something of Newport freshness, it takes a little more imagination to free yourself from the shackles that bind limited thoughts, represented by Lord Lambeth and his monosyllabic answers. But make no mistake, the reader, all this is done based on a very simple narrative, without flourishes and without long forays into the subjectivity and character of its characters, rather giving vent to their own gestures and their own lines so that from then these characters come to life and it is possible to interpret their paths, their motivations.

Class divisions and the place of blacks

The subtlety of the writing developed by Henry James for his novels makes the theoretical incursion on the social and political studies developed by this author, as well as the psychological studies in the course of the novel, unnecessary. Even so, there are several notes on the societies visited by his characters, even if in a more descriptive and less speculative way. This is how in this world of creation of a new society based on democracy, where people can progress in life, and where class boundaries seem to be undone, a social group often always appears on the sidelines – literally – and unable to overcome its position: the blacks.

The first one we meet is the butler of the Westgates' New York home. He always stays at the door, we don't find him anywhere else and the brevity of this meeting only reveals his inclination to help, but in this characteristic social disposition of staying in the corners that he is allowed, the margin, the border space, which he will not be able to cross – not even to escort visitors into the house or to the boss’s work. It reminds, therefore, of another passage, from another soap opera, when the protagonists of Pandora they cross the river and there are the black people, the riverside people, on the bank of the river – an image that in itself says a lot.

In a second moment, we find not one, but a group in a restaurant, again in the condition of servants, observing the relationships that take place between customers and waiting to be able to cross between the main hall and the kitchen. Mrs. Westgate at one point points to the English classes that would be insurmountable, and whoever is born in one would be fated to remain in it until the end of his life, as if they lived in a caste system similar to that of their colonies. But what we could see in this statement by Mrs. Westgate is that in the USA there are also certain groups that are often destined to remain in the same lower class by the simple chance of birth.

It is true that the democratic spirit allows American women to give their opinions on important issues, and even to join meetings to resolve important business and political issues - again this is the case of certain meetings narrated in Pandora – which gives the impression of the possibility of life progression, or better, class progression, to keep the term given by the American characters to the division of British society, but this progression is not allowed to all, and the black, having been born black, will remain as the servant in the corners of the leisure spaces of the upper classes.

The breath of positivity really remains with the younger female characters, laden with a certain innocence, like Bessie Alden, and who manage to walk through this world of divisions as if ignoring them, which she does in many cases precisely because of your innocence. This innocence that is allowed to a young, literate Bostonian, devourer of books, who finds herself extremely uncomfortable when the Duchess's buffoonery imposes itself in front of her to analyze her as an object of possession. It is emancipation that the enlightenment provided by Bessie Alden's books does not let her spirit be brought down by this encounter, even though her innocence speaks volumes.

*Yves Sao Paulo is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at UFBA. Book author The metaphysics of cinephilia (Publisher Fi).

ebook preface an international episode, by Henry James.


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